Warren Brown is an incredible actor who’s already had an impressive career, but he’s never been better than he was in Strike Back season 7, episode 6.

SPOILER ALERT: This article contains major spoilers for Friday’s episode of Strike Back season 7.

In “Episode 6,” audiences found out what happened to Brown’s Sergeant Thomas “Mac” McAllister after he was left grievously wounded at the end of the prior episode. Though Mac appeared alive and well for much of the hour, the final minutes revealed a devastating truth: he had actually died of his injuries, making him the first main character to be killed off in the Cinemax series’ final season.

The move was not wholly unexpected. Strike Back has always dispatched characters with white-knuckle regularity, and especially with this being the last season, odds were good that not every member of Section 20 would make it out alive. Remember that when the series originally ended in 2015, fan favorite Sergeant Julia Richmond (Michelle Lukes) died in the line of duty after tangling with Li Na (Michelle Yeoh). So it felt likely, if not almost appropriate, that someone from the new cast wouldn’t survive either.

But for it to be Mac? And to be handled in the way that it was? Those were honest surprises, and what made them work was the integrity and the clear emotional investment of Warren Brown.

“Episode 6” appeared, at first, to be just another flash-forward. Mac was now living in the suburbs with his wife and young child, in a move that felt reminiscent of last season’s “Episode 9,” where Strike Back showed us that Samuel Wyatt (Daniel MacPherson) had tried to assimilate back into civilian life and reconcile with his wife Madison (guest star Kelly B. Jones). But that didn’t work out for Wyatt, and it was readily apparent that it wasn’t going well for Mac, either.

Normally the most emotionally stable of Section 20, he was paranoid about his family’s safety, even when Wyatt and Gracie Novin (Alin Sumarwata) dropped by for a visit and reassured him that everything was fine. He was in therapy sessions where he was forced to confront his pre-Section history, including a gut punch of a moment where his commanding officer – played by Chris Ryan, the man whose book is the basis for this show – made a cruel and unfathomable decision. Slowly, “Episode 6” pulled the thread and it unraveled Mac’s entire life, until we were confronted with his colleagues trying and failing to save him, while he slipped back into the perfect world he’d built in the beyond.

It was a completely different script than has ever been done before on Strike Back, and certainly not an easy one from an acting point of view. It was a character study, and one that had to be slow-played so as to not give away the crushing truth too early. Brown hit every single note perfectly; in so doing, illustrated why Mac’s death would be so crippling to Section 20 (and perhaps why he had to be the unlucky one to go).

From the beginning, Mac has always been the heart of the reformed Section 20. He’s the leader, the most even-keeled, the one who was supposed to go and be an officer when all this was over. When both of his teammates could be loose cannons, he was almost always on the straight and narrow. And we watched Warren Brown do something really cool with that: he explained the toll it takes, and the reward you get, for being that guy.

That particular path on a TV show has a tendency to be cut and dried, and very boring. There’s always someone who has to be the “straight man” to everyone else’s jokes or their quirks or in this case, their reckless risks in order to save the world. Somebody has to hold the ship together. And with Mac this season, audiences got to see that it really sucks sometimes, but it also means a lot, too.

We watched him make difficult decisions that weighed on him, whether it was stopping his boss from shooting a civilian or having to let a terrorist go, and when you added that into the information from the flashback scenes in “Episode 6,” fans could really see how McAllister’s many years of service (much of it thankless) had worn him down. Brown was incredible at playing the mental and emotional wear and tear that Mac had suffered, while still maintaining the character’s brave face. We could see the pain and confusion, and hear it in his tone, but he continued to…well, soldier on. As he always did.

At the same time, we saw his love for his colleagues and his country, too. It was clear the bond he’d formed with Wyatt and Novin, which is a long way from how he first met both of them two-plus seasons ago. The admiration they had for him was obvious, and the genuine chemistry between the three actors was key in making this plotline work. That group still felt like a family even separate from Section 20. They supported one another until the end (and it will be very compelling to see how Mac’s death affects the rest of the team going forward, now that they’ve lost their anchor).

In this episode, Warren Brown showed every single side of Thomas McAllister, including some that we had never seen before. And that was what made “Episode 6” so poignant. We saw someone who was happy and healthy and completely free, only to realize that he never actually got to be that person. Even though Mac had more than earned it. That’s the point of the whole episode: no matter how much you accomplish, how much good you do, is it really enough just to be a soldier? Or do you deserve, do you need, can you ever have something more?

At least, if nothing else, we can content ourselves with thinking of that happy afterlife he’s living. But it feels like there’s a void in the show where Mac’s conscience, his calm and his confidence used to be. This team will be flawed without him, as it should be. He was a good soldier to the very end, even when being a good soldier meant breaking the rules with Section 20, and when it meant going out on his own. He knew something was missing in his life, as we saw throughout Strike Back season 7, but he never got the chance to fix it. Dying is, in a weird way, fitting for him since his entire life was about being a soldier.

And there will definitely be a void in the absence of Warren Brown. He’s been brilliant in so many other shows, but he threw himself into Strike Back so completely, and especially in this swan song the audience could feel the love he had for his character and his colleagues. He’s been everything that a team leader should be off-camera, too. Whatever happens for him next, he’s just given us one of the TV performances of the year.

Strike Back airs Fridays at 10:00 p.m. ET/PT on Cinemax.

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